6. Dex recalls his past as the future unrolls - Book Two - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
He was dreaming - though it seemed so like reality he could barely tell the difference - but then, so much of the last few days had been like that, with him. He ran on endlessly through fog, the sounds of pursuit close behind him, doomed to wander forever in some high cold empty place.
The dream changed: he was back in the bothy - someone was outside, he’d heard a motor-cycle engine roar closer, and then stutter to a stop. The door of the bothy opened - he dreamt that, and he dreamt the biting wind from outside and the eternal rain of the West Highlands spattering in upon his face. The last days had honed his terror of discovery; he reared up out of the tangled bedclothes, pressing backwards against the wall, his heart racing, his skin clammy with sweat. In the dream he heard a voice saying, “Ssh. It’s only me. Get back to sleep.”
And he knew - with the absolute certainty that is only accessible to the mad and to those who dream - that against all hope he had reached safe haven at last.
He turned over on his pillow and sank into untroubled sleep for the first time in weeks.
A weak yellow sunlight was straggling in through the grimy panes of the bothy when he woke. Although his limbs were weak and shaky the fever had left them; his eyes were clear of the hectic fog that had clouded his vision for so long, and the acrid taste had left his mouth. The peat-reek from the fireplace added a savoury piquancy to the air, and he thought, with the languidness of an invalid on the turning point toward recovery, that if someone were to offer him food now he could almost bear to eat it.
He turned over in the bed, towards the fire, relishing that he could move without his joints setting up an aching chorus of protest - and came to an abrupt stop.
Joe lay curled on the hearthrug in a tangle of blankets, his hair tousled and about two days’ growth of beard on his chin sparkling dark-gold in the sunshine. As if alerted by Dex’s quick, instantly suppressed exhalation of shock, Joe turned in his cocoon, those unmistakable long-lashed eyes prising open just enough to look at him, his whole face lighting with his smile.
“Dex? Next time, leave a forwarding address, there’s a good boy.”
And with that he turned over, burying his head in his blankets, and the sound of his slow even breathing - almost, though not quite, a snore - filled the bothy once again.
Dex watched him as he slept. It had always been a sly, guilty pleasure to watch the Captain when he knew his scrutiny to be unobserved; to revel in the play of his muscles under a close-fitting T-shirt, or the way his mouth crinkled at the corners and his eyes blazed when he laughed. This time, however, Dex watched him with the desperate intense precision that informed him that time when he’d had to memorise a prototype torpedo launcher in the hope he could reverse-engineer the blue-print against the clock from visual recollection alone.
He needed to be sure his precise engineer’s memory had caught the smallest detail.
After all, this day - the next hour or so - would be the last chance he’d ever have to watch the Captain.
For the Captain couldn’t possibly know anything at all about the photographs, or he wouldn’t have granted him that amused, accepting, relaxed smile as he stirred in his sleep, acknowledged him, and sank back again into oblivion.
And Dex was damned if he was going to continue lying to him. He was a very long way from home, and he was so awfully tired. The Captain needed to know that he wasn’t worth saving; he needed to let him wander back out into the fog.
His memory went back, fitfully to everything that had brought him here (he was, in a sense, saying goodbye to his life, and didn’t they say drowning men saw all their past lives, as if drowning itself weren’t bad enough?).
He remembered Professor Przevosniak, back when he was fourteen. He’d been in the public library, puzzling through some mathematical problem of glorious irrelevance to his mundane existence; handicapped by his lack of knowledge of the intervening steps. He’d briefly considered and dismissed going to Mr Halsey, his high-school teacher.
It was a not-terribly-funny joke in the school that he knew more that Mr Halsey did. And had done so for some years. And that however careful he was to express proper respect for his teacher, both of them were fully aware of it, nonetheless.
Which had earned him a few canings on the hand for “insolence”, come to think of it.
A thick accent from above his left ear said, “You struggle? Wait a moment. I go; find you the book you need.”
And a few moments later a small green-canvas-bound volume called something engagingly catchy like “Novel Applications of Binomial Theory, And Certain Indications Towards Possible Advanced Developments of The Same” dropped onto the desk in front of him. It had, according to the flyleaf, last been checked out from the library in 1903.
It turned out to answer all his current puzzlements.
And pose him twenty more even harder questions in their place, to boot.
Blissfully, he leant back against the hard library chair, and started to devour it.
Professor Przevosniak (he hadn’t known his name then, of course) had smiled, slightly, and passed on into the further reaches of the library.
It was three more weeks before he even saw him again.
That time Dex had been considering a problem in applied mechanics. In the neighbourhood he had become known over the years as the miracle kid who could fix anything, a reputation that his father alternatively took an intense, vicarious pride in or which provoked an equally intense resentment at the presumption of those who requested help. And it was purely a matter of chance which way his father would jump on any given occasion. And, whichever way, it was almost certain to leave Dex in torments of toe-curling embarrassment. But it was infinitely worse if the request was ill-timed; say if his father had spent too long that day “discussing politics” with his neighbour Mr Petersen, or had otherwise decided that the world valued him at less than his deserving.
More than once Dex had seen his mother scurrying surreptitiously out of the back door to try frantically to smooth relations with some neighbour who had just received an earful to the effect that Mr Dearborn “wasn’t going to have the sweepings of some European slum imposing on his family’s good nature”.
So he had taken, where possible, to intercepting such requests before his father got to hear of them and dealing with them - if within his power - in such a way as to ensure he never did. And that meant spending time doing his sketches and preliminary work in the library, at least until the perpetually disapproving librarians found some reason or other to tell him to stop.
And this time it mattered; that year infantile paralysis had swept through the neighbourhood in the spring as it had done every two or three years since anyone could remember. And when the tide had ebbed little Sukey Michaels had been left dragging her left leg in a heavy, ugly brace, left behind as the other, more mobile kids raced away from her, leaving her struggling in their wake, her eyes flooding with tears and her small piping voice asserting defiantly that no, she didn’t care one little bit.
The problem was two-fold. Redesigning the hospital-issue brace to make it lighter, less obtrusive, easy for a child to cope with, was the simple part. There were things one could do with aluminium, for example. Or steel struts, cast hollow to save weight, used cunningly to reinforce each other by use of the precise balance of competing forces. Or an interesting application of springs and levers which might even, in time, come to strengthen the wasted muscles around the ineffectual knee joint. There were workshops in the neighbourhood, by now, where his friends would let him have off-cuts, or turn a blind eye to his coming in on a Saturday when the foreman was away to work quietly on the end of a bench at something. There were plenty of possibilities there.
So: the brace, by and large, was a simple issue.
The real problem was the scooter. All the better-off kids in the neighbourhood had wheedled them out of their parents somehow this fall, and the poorer kids had approximations cobbled together from the wheels of outgrown roller-skates, loosely bolted onto planks, the handlebars salvaged from discarded bicycles, and all recklessly bound together with string and optimism. The sidewalks were perilously littered with kids balanced precariously on the platforms of the contraptions, pumping one leg frantically to achieve ever more reckless speeds, or whooping with delight as they crested the local hills, and sped downwards to frequent bruising capsizes in a heap at the bottom.
Most importantly, unlike a tricycle, which had been his first impractical thought, they only needed one active leg to provide the motive power. Oh, naturally most kids alternated which leg they used. But there was no actual law of physics to that effect.
And Dex had observed that there was no question of the kids with the good scooters having to chase after the others for attention; they came flocking around without prompting. And there was little doubt that he had the skills to make the one he was designing for Sukey Michaels the fastest, classiest scooter in the neighbourhood.
The only problem was getting the device past Mrs Michaels’ panicked over-protectiveness of her stricken youngest. At present she was reacting with blind horror, declaring the scooter was an abomination, calculated to leave Sukey without the use of both her legs and with a smashed skull into the bargain!
It was, Dex thought with the benefit of nearly a decade and a half’s hindsight, the first time that he’d appreciated the profound truth that in engineering the machines aren’t what cause the problems: it’s the users.
He had been working on the designs for over a fortnight; adding shock absorbers here; a support for the ineffectual braced leg there, moreover a support that under stress conditions crucially collapsed, lest a sharp upright jab dangerously close to a vulnerable midriff.
Though with an eye for the user, it was true that the aerodynamics had been designed to be a thing of perfection and a joy for ever (the first war-plane he’d worked on, he recollected ruefully later, had been a clod-hopper compared to Sukey Michaels’ scooter). And the ball-bearings would run like oiled silk. If Dex had anything to do with it.
But Mrs Michaels was hardly up to spotting something like that.
In the library, he had spent hour after hour over design after design, his tongue protruding beneath his teeth as he refined his drawings, only to have Mrs Michaels reject them one after another on grounds of “safety”.
He was determined not to be beaten. But he was very close to defeat that evening in the library (outside the streetlamps casting gold circles in the evening dusk, and the other kids clustered around the glow with their baseball bats and gloves, trying desperately to hold onto the last fading edges of the season, as though this season was the only season, and spring would never come again).
There was a cough above his head.
He looked up. The little old man (Dex, fifteen years older than his fourteen-year old self and feeling a century apart, permitted himself a wry smile. How old had Professor Prevosniak really been then? 50? So old, even?) with the grey intent eyes under the thick brows looked at the designs.
“And these are intended for? Precisely, please?”
Before he could speak, Dex suddenly was aware of a grey-bunned, faintly mustachioed Presence above his head. The Chief Librarian. His heart had stilled. And then Professor Przevosniak had looked up at her; cocking his head and smiling slightly, but with infinite authority. And she had, with a murmured apology, backed away a step. And Dex had, abruptly, realised that for Professor Prezevosniak the librarians - whom he had always previously thought of as angels with flaming swords who had the power to exclude him forever from Paradise - were on the whole rather clumsy people, doing a good job in difficult circumstances, no doubt, but for the rest of the time flapping around where they weren’t precisely wanted.
“We will retire where we will not disturb your organisation,” Professor Przevosniak had then told the Presence, and, catching Dex’s eye, indicated that they should remove themselves to the lobby. Once there he had flickered a disconcertingly mischievous smile at Dex.
“Ach! They are, you understand, all the same. From Crackov to Warsaw, from Danzig to Vienna. Across the breadth of Europe I have fought off those - ahem - Valkyries who see it as their life’s duty to throw themselves between the thinker and the text.”
He turned to Dex, his face suddenly serious. “Show me, please? The drawings I have seen you working on for so long? What are they? And where is the problem?”
It was then he began to stammer an explanation - about Sukey Michaels - and the safety features - and the impossibility of persuading Mrs Michaels that he had cracked the problem. Professor Przevosniak heard him out, and then gave a small, crooked, smile.
“Yes. I see. Show me see the drawings.”
He looked at them - drew a long forefinger across them. “Good. Yes. Good. Very Good. You have seen - yes - the proportions of things. So good, and yet so young. Indeed. But here - here you could save weight. And save steps. Here. And no; this would not fail to safety as you imagine. Were you to weld the strut to this position, however - then -“
A few strokes of a broad pencil turned the design round. He looked at Dex. And handed the paper back to him.
“Go,” Professor Przevosniak said. “Build a prototype to that design. And trust me. What the mother is not going to accept from the clever youngling, maybe the grey-haired Professor from Old Europe may talk her into, hein?”
And then suddenly the old man’s eyes were very blue; very disingenuous. Dex had nodded; done what the old man said. Produced his prototype - gleaming with all the fresh paint and chromium the old man had told him to apply. Swallowed his pride - as the old man had advised him he should. And Professor Przevosniak had somehow convinced Mrs Michaels. She had been lapping out of his hand by the end. And then they had seen Sukey Michael, allowed to be entrusted with the scooter at long last, cresting the nearest hill, and whooping in sheer triumph as it gave her wings, flying down to end in a blazing, admiring, envious, bruising capsize at the bottom.
After that, he and Professor Przevosniak were friends and allies. Sometimes he didn’t see the Professor for weeks; sometimes he was in the library days on end. Nor did he always have time to talk. But the sight of him poring over mathematical texts, and persuading the librarians to order ever more obscure tomes for his benefit, was itself a breath of air for Dex in the sometimes stifling narrowness of the neighbourhood.
There are other people in the world who find mathematics an intricate and exhilarating dance, rather than a bewildering morass, or a pointless irrelevance.
Gradually, as winter wore through to spring, and some of the bolder kids in the neighbourhood started to rootle through cupboards to fetch gloves, bats and balls out into daylight after their long hibernation, Professor Prevosniak started to set him ferociously complex proofs and theorems to work through, and tear apart his answers with a white-hot, glowing enthusiasm which steeled Dex’s determination that next time, next time….
Until the day he’d carelessly allowed his father to catch him with one of the Professor’s borrowed books.
He hadn’t - to be fair - expected his father home so soon; it was one of his political days and he had expected him and Mr Petersen to be congratulating themselves on spotting President Coolidge’s understated genius for some hours yet. And there was something about the set of Mr Dearborn’s shoulders as he entered the kitchen that made Dex’s heart sink; something that set off alarm bells which warned him that, in the perpetually rolling motion picture that Dex, however hard he tried otherwise, believed made up his father’s perception of the world, the caption “Devoted husband and unparalleled father” had just come round again.
It was an affliction that happened every three months or so, though fortunately there were four Dearborn kids - counting only the ones still living and at home - to spread it across, and normally it was possible - with care - to keep one’s head down until the inflammation died naturally away in a week or so (the longest outbreak Dex could remember had been timed at 12 and a half days).
But it was just bad luck that Dex caught the full force of it alone and unprepared. And doubly bad luck he had the evidence in his hands, and was too careless to hide it.
“What’s that, what’s that you’ve got there?”
Mr Dearborn pushed out his chest (always takes such a close interest in the children, it’s a wonder to see him. There’s not one father in a hundred would take the trouble he does -) and stretched out a pudgy white hand, demanding he hand over the book. Dex, hesitating only momentarily (what else could he do, after all?), passed it over, chewing his lower lip in sheer nervousness, as his father narrowed his little eyes, looked it suspiciously up and down, frowned uncomprehendingly (as if, Dex thought with a manic despairing hilarity, he was about to say that it was all Greek to him, which, since it happened to be a commentary on Euclid, would be ironically appropriate in the circumstances).
His father flicked the pages back and forth, looking increasingly baffled. Dex stifled the urge to laugh, though, to say truth, it was no laughing matter and deep down he knew it. His father drew a deep breath, as though to say no damned book was going to get the better of him, huh! and then - bewilderingly - Dex saw his attention caught - his father’s eyes fixed on the flyleaf; looking down at the fine copper-plate inscription on the black-lettered book-plate neatly pasted inside the front cover, and became suddenly the victim of cold dread as his father swelled up like a turkey-cock, his skin changed to an unattractive shade of puce, and his voice assumed that note which Dex, shrinking inwardly, had always associated with the buckle end of a belt.
“Who gave you this?”
Dex stammered something; it appeared, at least, that the words “Professor Prezvosniak” and “library” were intelligible. His father threw the book down on the counter in a passion.
“Prezzvonozzyak? That the grey haired guy? Teaches night-school, or some such?”
Dex nodded dumbly. His father snorted.
“Mr Petersen was telling me something about that - that - him - only the other day. Saying that we - the residents - ought at least to be able to do something about that sort of person coming here, bringing down our neighbourhood. Even if we hadn’t been able to stop the other scum….Oh, wait till he hears this! Said there ought to be something we could do to stop it, did he? Well, between us we’ll be damned if we don’t make sure there is. Wait here.”
His father snatched up his coat and hat, which he’d put on the peg behind the door as he entered, and left. A second later, however, the door burst open a foot or so. His father’s head poked round through the gap.
“And don’t you be touching that - that thing while I’m away, either. Go to your room!”
Inexplicably, he wagged a white forefinger at the book before vanishing and slamming the door behind him.
Dex, his heart pounding, grabbed the string bag his mother kept for grocery and raced upstairs, into the room over which he and his big brother nightly disputed territorial rights.
Whatever had gone wrong, had gone badly wrong, and he needed to sort things first, and ask questions later. He rifled frantically through the collection of orange crates that made up his bookshelves.
Yes - here, and here, and here. He snatched up every one of the books Professor Prezevosniak had lent him, scribbled a brief, bewildered, apologetic note in pencil, tucked it into the front cover of the first of them, thrust them into the bag and turned, irresolutely, clutching them to his chest. His mother - yes, he could hear her coming in below - and yes, she would do the right thing if he asked her. Unquestionably. But if Father found out - well, it wasn’t as if he reserved his belt-buckle for his sons -
Seeking alternatives, he turned towards the window. And whistled in sheer relief. Down below on the sidewalk little Sukey Michaels - not so little, actually, she’d shot up over the winter, he’d had to make her a longer brace - was stumping leisurely along.
He let off a raucous two-fingered whistle. She looked all around; first, he guessed, for the other girl - the one who’d obviously prompted the salute - and then, baffled, for the perpetrator. Catching her eye, at last, he beckoned her closer.
“Sukey! Please? I’m stuck up here. Dad’s - um - mad at me.” He shrugged, helplessly. “Look, I’m stuck. Here. And he’s awful mad. Can you take these books round to Professor Prezvosniak’s, please? He lodges over that draper’s store on Main.”
He fumbled desperately in his pocket. “I’ll give you a nickel.” It was all he had until Saturday, but he knew what that look in his father’s eye meant, and the books had been lent, not given, and were not his to see ripped up before his eyes -
Sukey drew herself up, proudly, looking for a moment as though she were an Empress, and as if an entire court kow-towed around her.
“Thank you, Dex. But I don’t want a nickel. Of course I’ll take him his books if you want me to. And Mama said he’d helped you make me my scooter. So. There. It - it would be my privilege to oblige. Mister Dearborn.”
He’d smiled down at her, and dropped the heavy bag down out through the window. Which, bracing herself on her bad leg, she’d nonetheless caught. And lumbered off. Faithfully taking her burden to its destination, as it turned out.
After that, Dex had sat on the edge of his bed, bewildered and terrified, for some time. Until -
There were voices outside the window; his father’s familiar aggrieved sound and Professor Prezevosniak’s heavy accent, raised for once in a storm of protest.
Despite his father’s injunction, Dex bolted out of his bedroom and into the cupboard under the stairs. It was, of course, an adjunct of the kitchen (where his mother was labouring and might at a pinch be prevailed on to lie for him). His mother saw him scurry in. She raised her eyebrows, but made her face otherwise immobile.
There was a crack next to the newel post. It was the one he had worked over the year to widen, unobtrusively. With one’s eye to the right point one could see anything. For, if he didn’t rate you, Mr Dearborn would hardly invite you into even the stiff parlour, let alone the relaxed living room. But he wouldn’t conduct a row like this one wholly on the doorstep, if Dex was any judge, either. The hall would be the place. And from underneath the stairs one could hear everything. And in a few seconds he was proved right.
“Petersen recognised your name. And after a bit of digging we turned up the newspaper piece, too. Here. Recognise it?”
Professor Prevosniak’s voice had never sounded so arrogantly Old Europe (and all that meant), Dex thought.
“Of course. It is scarcely the kind of experience one could forget. As you would appreciate. But. Were you to read it closely.”
(Dex, sweating under the stairs, could decode precisely the intonation of were you to read it closely which Professor Przevosniak had put into that sentence. Were you able to read it at all. He hoped his father would be denser.)
“If you have read it closely,” Professor Przevosniak continued, “You will have seen that I was acquitted of that shameful charge. No?”
And then, very deliberately, Professor Przevosniak added,
“When I was on Ellis Island, they would send people to tell us, you understand, of the benefits we would enjoy should we be allowed to land on the soil of the United States. And they reminded us, constantly, that in contrast to the position which applied in the lands we had left, that we had at last reached a country where “a man is innocent until he is proved guilty”. Was that not so, then?”
There was a pause. And then Dex’s father gave vent to a torrent of incomprehensible ranting. Professor Przevosniak, Dex guessed, had planned to hear it out to the very end. And then he caught his own name swept up in the obloquy. And Professor Przevosniak caught it too, evidently. And his pose shattered.
“What? But you cannot possibly imagine -“
His father’s voice had all the intense smugness that Dex had learnt to detest over the years.
“And why else would I suppose you would be hanging round my son, eh?”
There was a gulping sound; putting his eye to the crack next to the newel post Dex caught a view of Professor Przveosniak’s face collapsed in shock. His thick accents tried to wrap themselves round the incomprehensible.
“But - but still - you cannot possibly imagine - I may have been indiscreet, surely, and foolish, perhaps - but you suspect - I might have feelings - might have expressed feelings - towards someone whom I regarded as a student? Never! Never! For you to think such a thing - yes - it touches my honour - back in the old days - back when I was the man I was I would have asked you to answer for that - yes, at the end of three feet of tempered steel! I have been out on the field touching matters of honour - yes - and I would again - “
He spluttered and ran to a stop. He took two laboured breaths, and added,
“Mr Dearborn. If it is your request, I will not speak to your son again. You have your concerns, and - while I believe you to be wrong, nonetheless I respect those concerns. But you must know that - in my considered professional judgment - your son is one of those geniuses that, as a professor, one dreams to find once in a generation. There are scholarships - there are bursaries. There are ways and means. In the name of the Holy Virgin, tell me you will not prevent his proceeding to college, should he prove - as I assume he will - good enough?”
Dex felt his heart almost stop. College? An ambition as ridiculous as flying to the moon, and yet one he’d dreamt of since he’d first heard what college was. And imagine Professor Przevosniak thinking of it independently -
Dex’s father snorted.
“College? Are you mad? That’s not something that people like us have anything to do with. And a good thing, if there are people like you teaching it. And they can’t somehow seem to see how wrong that is.
There was a final outburst of spluttering from Professor Przevosniak. And then, it seemed, an admittance of defeat, and his departure. Dex dodged out into the kitchen just as his father retreated from the hall.
“I thought,” his father said in an awful voice, “I told you to stick to your room.”
“Being in trouble doesn’t let you off doing the washing up,” his mother interjected, before Dex could say anything. He dared not send her a glimpse of thanks. She continued. “He’d got his chores to do. I knew you’d sent him to his room, but I thought you meant not before he’d done them. And there’s the potatoes still to peel. Also.”
There was a pause. And then his father said, “Yes. Well. That’s right. Do what your mother says, and go to your room afterwards.” And turned on his heel to leave the kitchen.
He was sitting on the step of the backdoor, peeling potatoes and dropping them into the galvanised bucket beside him, when he felt the faintest breath on the back of his neck. He looked up. His mother had her hands in the pockets of her flowered calico apron.
“I’m sorry,” she said abruptly. And turned and gone indoors.
That was, he recalled muzzily later, the only time he’d actually cried since he’d stopped being really, really small. Of course, weeks later, when he’d been told of Professor Przevosniak’s death (apparently something untraceable had gone wrong with the gas mantle in his lodging) he’d felt pretty bad. But he’d held on, and not blubbed, just as a proper boy should. Even when his father had come in, his face all alive with glee, and told him “We got him in the end, son.” And he’d asked dumbly why it was necessary, and his father had, incomprehensibly, muttered something like “You’re not old enough to know about that. And let’s hope you never will be.”.
Perhaps, even, if he was given long enough after Joe woke up he would explain about Professor Przevosniak. Perhaps. But come what may he would tell him about the photographs, and stand Joe’s disgust. With Professor Przevosniaak’s stiff-necked independence. With the same dignity.
That settled in his head, at length he slept.